Overcoming Catastrophizing

One of the reasons people fail to take actions that would be to their benefit is the paralyzation that results from fear – fear that can cascade into what we call catastrophizing.  So you don’t ask that girl for a date.  You don’t take that step to go after a different job.  You decline the opportunity to make a public speech.  What happens in all these situations is that our fear response creates turmoil within our emotional systems – we want to flee.  Our minds start catastrophizing – meaning we imagine a series of terrible things that might occur if we proceed.  Frequently many of these projections are irrational, but the fear they engender is real, and it muddles our ability to think clearly.    The good news is, there are some steps we can take to help reduce catastrophizing – and help us take actions we would otherwise avoid.

When you have an initial fear reaction, and you catch yourself starting to catastrophize, breathe deeply and ask yourself a series of three questions – perhaps even writing out your answers to help think logically:

Question #1. 

If I take action and my worst fear comes to be (e.g., the girl says “no,” you don’t get the promotion, or you bomb at the podium giving the speech), what would be your opportunities to recover?  In other words, how would you recover?  And what would actually be the long-term consequences?  By focusing on how we can recover, we often find that there really is not an inevitable tragedy in front of us even if we fail.  In MindSet terms, this is giving yourself a psychological inoculation.  It represents thinking ahead to anticipate a poor outcome when you have already mentally planned for how you will respond and where you can find a successful exit door.  This step immediately reduces catastrophizing as we realize the world would not actually come to an end if things went south. 

Question #2. 

Ask yourself what are the consequences of doing nothing? If you never approach a girl, you may live your life alone.  If you don’t try for that new job, then you better plan to be sitting in the same cubicle for 35 years.  If you don’t give that speech, it may significantly inhibit your ability to advance or make an impact in your company – something you’d really like to do.  Don’t let yourself off the hook by delaying the decision to act.  When you decide to table a decision, you HAVE made a decision – a decision to do nothing.  Here is the rule: if you are not going to have more information on which to base your decision next week, you might as well make the call now.  We lose brain cells every day after age 20, so you will not be any smarter next week!

Question #3. 

Finally, ask yourself what the result might be if you took action and it actually went well!   How exciting would it be to get that date?  How great would life be if you were doing something you loved?  How would you feel if the presentation went well and your personal and professional reputation improved?

Taking a few minutes to ponder these three simple steps is a powerful way to counter the paralyzing impact of catastrophizing.  These questions cannot only help you garner more success, but are also great tools to share with others as you are teaching, mentoring, parenting, or advising.

If you’re interested in more insights and techniques like this to help you fulfill your potential as a leader, consider joining us for our upcoming programs: the MindSet Leadership Series, curated for executives, owners, and directors, or Propel: a leadership accelerator designed for front-line supervisors and rising stars.

Related: The Performance Review Three Orientations – If you have ever been a supervisor faced with holding a difficult performance review, these straightforward tips are for you.

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